THE GENDER POLITICS OF SEX APPEAL IN FASHION ADVERTISING

March 21, 2017

 

Like any capitalist industry, fashion depends on marketing and advertising to make the latest trends and collections known, and the exponential rate with which media has expanded has made fashion audiences multiply. But like the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and the responsibility of (primarily male) brand executives to (primarily female) consumers is one that has not often been negotiated with respect for ethics, especially when it comes to the visual market. As a result of the saturation of images that we receive from the media, we fail to realize that we are being fed a fast food version of the female body through sexually explicit advertising that exploits women through sexualization and objectification.  And now, as more women are hired as photographers and designers and brands label themselves as empowering, the conversation about objectification seems to be slipping away, despite little progress in this arena, as evidenced by the recent campaign against Saint Laurent's Spring 2017 advertisements on the Parisian Metro (pictured).

A report from the American Psychological Association in 2004 found that the hyper-sexualization of adolescent girls leads to self-objectification, which directly impacts low self-esteem, appearance anxiety, and other issues with mental health. But if you’ve ever experienced teenage girlhood, chances are, you already knew that. Regardless, many fail to recognize the signs that saturate our materialistically-charged modern society; the car commercial where a smiling, attractive woman is positioned on the passenger seat as if she were an accessory to the vehicle, the female news anchor on a panel of suit-wearing men who’s forced into a short skirt and low-cut top, or the big name rapper who is glorified for his sexual exploits and groupies. These representations have become the norm and unfortunately, this collective numbness has made it almost impossible to detect the harmful impact that hyper-sexualization has on both the female and male subconscious. 

To give you a perspective, in 2014, Alexander Wang debuted his denim collection in a campaign that featured model Anna Ewers in various compromising positions - wearing nothing but the jeans around her ankles and lying submissively in a chair, oiled up and stretched out with her hand in the crotch of the jeans, and curled up in the bathtub. Fast forward to Spring 2016, and Balmain Paris decides to bring back the 90s with its sex-appeal era posters and iconic supermodels, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer. While the models aren't revealing skin, the identical stances that they  hold - the lifted chest, the arched back, the open mouth, the narrowed eyes - replicate constructions of arousal and desire that grab an audience's attention.

If you take a closer look at these images of women that dominate everything from your favourite magazine cover to your local subway posters, you’ll also note that many of the key terms like 'hot' and 'sexy' are always in rotation. Sex sells and, as the lack of male representatives implies, the female body is usually the agent through which it is showcased, where women's bodies are both highly valued and commodified until they are disposable. 

In response to these double standards in exploitation, if you will, designer Tom Ford famously chose to treat this issue through 'reverse discrimination' by showing as much male skin as female in a 2002 ad for a Saint Laurent. The campaign featuring a nude male model ran in a few European publications, and was soon pulled from circulation. In retrospect, Ford told The Guardian last spring that he is "an equal opportunity objectifier – I’m just as happy to objectify men. The thing is, you can’t show male nudity in our culture in the way you can show female nudity. We’re very comfortable as a culture exploiting women, but not men." Though his words may be true, oftentimes, we forget that these images also have significant effects on their male audiences. 

In most cultures, power is seen through dominance, and apart from monetary gains or social status, the only other way men are taught to attain that higher mark on the food chain is by positioning themselves above their female counterparts, who in such cases often serve as 'props.' This creates what author Gigi Durham calls the “Lolita effect”, which centers around the publicly sexualized depiction of young girls by powerful, older men. Similarly, it has been widely considered that, in terms of sex appeal, women reach their peak in their late teens and that they cease to be seen as attractive beings by the time they reach their 40’s. Consequentially, many women spend the later half of their lives feeling undesirable in the eyes of society. Personally, watching the array of beautiful yet mostly very young women in magazine spreads and on runways, it makes me wonder if, in the eyes of some men, women are not only perceived as prized possessions but also as objects with an early expiration date. 

It is important to understand that we are simply talking about a media construct that makes it seem as if we all, at some point in time, collectively and freely chose sexuality over substance. Yet, like most ideals that we are programmed to reproduce, this notion is taught to us.  If men are excused as supposedly being ‘visual creatures’ then it is up to us all to feed them realistic, positive, empowering depictions of the women who surround them.  This can reflect sexuality, but it should be done so with responsibility and an understanding of the power dynamics at large within representations of sex and gender. 

 

Girls and women should still feel free to express themselves without worrying about shamed. In 2017, women are taking ownership their bodies and expressing this through their own unique lenses, but there is still a long way to go.

 

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